The Kentmere Round
When people learn that I like to climb mountains in the Lake District, they’ll often ask for a recommendation. And that presents a dilemma. Because while there’s no shortage of choices, committing to a single hill is not easy. It all depends on what you are after.
If you haven’t done any hillwalking before, I might suggest something like Catbells. If it’s a nice day, you want something bigger and look capable, then I might point you towards Skiddaw. And if your heart’s set on climbing ‘the big one’ then nothing but Scafell Pike will do.
People who’ve done some research ask about Great Gable, Bowfell and The Old Man of Coniston. Good choices. But I might counter them with my personal favourites (for now at least) – Crinkle Crags, the High Stile range, Grizedale Pike. All fine fells with magnificent views.
If you ask for a ‘hidden gem’, I might suggest Whin Rigg and Illgill Head high above the Wastwater Screes.
For the thrillseekers, nothing less than Helvellyn via the edges or Blencathra’s superb ridges will do.
Family-friendly? Loughrigg Fell is a good bet.
And if you just want to stride out and bag a load of summits then head for the Fairfield Horseshoe.
Ignore my advice
So it’s not such a simple question. And you might get a longer answer than you bargained for. But when it comes to the weekend and I’m looking for a walk to do, it gets a little easier. I’d just ignore everything I’ve told you and head for the Kentmere Round instead.
If you’re not a walker, chances are you’ve not heard of Kentmere. Tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the Lake District, the vast majority of people on their way to Windermere along the A591 race past the inconspicuous signs without a second glance. But those in the know make the turn.
Kentmere is a tiny settlement located around five miles from the main road. Once you pass through the village of Staveley, an ever-narrowing single-track road wends its way along the River Kent, taking you deeper into the valley. By car, it’s the one road in and out.
Just when you think the converging hedgerows can’t squeeze the strip of tarmac any narrower, you’ll arrive at your destination. There’s an old church, a village hall, some farms and a small number of charming abodes. As the asphalt runs out, it feels like you’ve stepped back to a time unconcerned with the hustle and bustle of the rest of the National Park. It’s not exactly sleepy, with tractors buzzing up and down the narrow road; but it does feel less concerned with the trappings of modern life somehow.
And once you’re out on the fells, you’ll feel part of an exclusive club. It’s one of the more remote parts of the Lake District and the limited access means you’re likely to see only a handful of people on the tops even on the busiest of days. If you want in, there’s space for no more than half-a-dozen cars to park considerately outside the village hall, which asks for a small donation in return. Occasionally a farmer opens up a field for a few more cars but best not to rely on this facility. No use arriving late here; it’s not that kind of place.
The Kentmere Round
The Kentmere Round ordinarily takes in nine summits. But I’d be skipping High Street today, having tackled this from Mardale Head earlier in the year. Similarly for Mardale Ill Bell and Harter Fell – I planned to skirt around the high points and not add in a few extra metres to bag these again.
Today’s a long walk – the longest in this series – but there’s no need to rush. Taking your first few steps on the Garburn Pass, you’ll start to appreciate the tranquility, the scenery, the isolation, and feel the need to slow things down.
The Pass tops out below the gentle slopes of Sallows where the horseshoe-proper begins. Your first objective is the delightfully-named summit of Yoke. But it’s not the path ahead that commands your attention; it’s the unrivalled panorama of the Western fells in the distance.
Starting with the Coniston range, your eyes move right to pick out the Langdales with Bowfell and Crinkle Crags in the background, before the unmistakable dome of Great Gable draws your gaze. It’s a view I wasn’t expecting so early in the day and another tick in the box for the often-overlooked far-eastern fells.
From the summit of Yoke, you start to piece the jigsaw together, matching the peaks you see to the picture on the box. Looking north there’s the cone-shaped summit of Ill Bell, which shields Froswick and Thornthwaite Crag for now. You can make out Mardale Ill Bell and the Nan Bield Pass leading to the hulk of Harter Fell. The final two peaks – Kentmere Pike and Shipman Knotts – were in shadow, set against the backdrop of thick cloud over the Howgills, which threatened to spill over at any moment, like a candy-floss machine set to maximum.
And from this settled vantage point, you’d never know about the huge crags adorning the eastern aspect of Yoke. But a fence keeps you well away, allowing you to admire the scene in blissful ignorance.
The Treacherous Bell-Shaped Hill
The next objective on the Kentmere Round is Ill Bell – arguably the most photogenic fell on the round. Its name means ‘the treacherous, bell-shaped hill’ and it doesn’t take much of the old imagination to see why. It’s your classic mountain shape, standing proudly in the centre of a trio of hills, like an Olympian on the top podium.
On the summit are two handsome cairns, visible from most of the Round. And there’s a particularly inviting view of Windermere stretching out to the south.
Coming down from Ill Bell takes a little care. It’s the steepest section of the route and while there’s nothing difficult, you wouldn’t want to slip in these remote parts. Besides, what’s the rush when you have scenery like this to enjoy.
Froswick comes and goes – the highlight being the prospect of Ill Bell over your shoulder. The scene from this angle shows off the handsome crags on its eastern face and the abruptness of the ridge you’ve just come down. Looking ahead, my next objective was clear. The summit cairn on Thornthwaite Crag is massive and stands out for miles. Like a beacon, it draws you ever closer.
This part of the walk is a bit of a trudge. With three fells already under your belt and several more to go, you become aware of how big this walk is. But that’s part of the appeal and as you reach the colossal summit cairn, you’ll think, as many others before you have done, that it’s the perfect spot to take the weight off your legs, enjoy a bite to eat and take in the views.
And that’s exactly what I did. There are plenty of health and safety notices telling you not to sit near the towering monument due to the risk of falling rocks. So I ventured a little further along the wall and took a pew.
The highlight, as I tucked into a bag of peanuts, was the cloud inversion slowly burning off over Ullswater. The wide plateau meant I couldn’t appreciate the full majesty of this spectacle but I imagined some lucky folk further along in the heart of the action.
After refuelling, many people will continue north-east towards the summit of High Street. But given my recent visit, I decided to head off-path to walk along the edge of the crags high above the Kentmere Valley. This approach allows you to grasp the scale of the Kentmere Round and has excellent views of Kentmere Reservoir, built in the 19th Century to provide water to a number of mills.
Our route crosses over the spur of Lingmell End and just bypasses the summit of Mardale Ill Bell. I then dropped down to the Nan Bield Pass junction, savouring the opportunity to appreciate the views over Small Water and Haweswater on the way.
The track climbs to Harter Fell, which was cloaked in the lingering clag now spilling over from the Pennines. Psychologically, this was perfect timing, as the slog up to Harter Fell from here looks worse than it actually is. And to give my legs even more respite, I cut the corner at the expense of summiting Harter Fell, contouring to join the path to Kentmere Pike further on.
Although the clag appeared set in for the next leg, it wasn’t unwelcome. The cool mist offered cover from the heat of the sun, which was doing its best to burn off the cloud. Here was my chance to stride out and relax. There’s no need to worry about wandering off course – a wall guides you to the summit of Kentmere Pike with the ruthless efficiency of a locked-on missile.
With nothing to see from the summit of Kentmere Pike, on I pressed to my final peak of the day. Shipman Knotts is the baby of the bunch but has a surprisingly technical descent. There’s nothing difficult mind, it’s just the rocky outcrops and boggy sections require a little concentration at the end of a long day.
Suddenly, I dropped below the clouds, the blue skies and green pastures of the Longsleddale valley opening up to my left. I made a mental note to explore this unspoilt valley another day. But for now my focus drifted back to the Kentmere Round. The wall took me safely off the hill, and as I traipsed across the last few fields, I gazed back at the fells lining the valley. The shapely profiles of Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick. The hulks of Mardale Ill Bell and Harter Fell. And the more gentle descents of Kentmere Pike and Shipman Knotts, still lurking beneath a blanket of cloud.
I returned to Kentmere muddy, hot and with plenty of quality hill miles in my legs. I passed through some tranquil woodland, accompanied by the soundtrack of trickling water and the gentle hum of a tractor trundling along the narrow lanes. The parking area at the village hall was now full. No use arriving late here; it’s not that kind of place.
The Kentmere Round doesn’t include the biggest and most iconic mountains. It’s not one for families, thrillseekers or socialites. And you needn’t bother if you want easy access, excellent parking and a coffee shop at the end.
And that’s exactly why it’s the one I couldn’t recommend to anyone, so I’ll just keep it to myself.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Kentmere
Distance: 12 miles (19.2 km)
Wainwright count: 6 (8 if you choose to summit Mardale Ill Bell and Harter Fell)
Navigation: Clear paths for the first half and the fence / wall from Harter Fell to Shipman Knotts provides a useful handrail in all weathers. But this is a big mountain day so keep your wits about you to avoid costly diversions.
Terrain: Good paths over long, lofty ridges. Take care on the descents from Ill Bell and Shipman Knotts.
Facilities: None in Kentmere. Head back to Staveley for more options.
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.